Courage Style Aristocracy
Dominic Campbell undertakes a reckoning with Nietzsche
It seemed impossible to me after reading Nietzsche, to take seriously the course of career, success and well-being in a world teeming with the "last man" predicted in Also sprach Zarathustra and marked by the facile acceptance of the now Godless world as it is. The future should not be separated from the past. Thoughtless careers for money, petty fame and security were ambitions I disdained, as Nietzsche disdained them and inspired me to disdain them. Nietzsche was and is for me and despite his own disdain for the movement to which we give the name, a thorough romantic. To an extent, this magazine has been conceived and continued in Nietzsche’s shadow. To be a romantic is to be "half in love with easeful death" and in the spirits of the past.. Now, nel mezzo cammin di nostra vita, it is time for my reckoning with Friedrich Nietzsche.
Summarised, Nietzsche is associated with a number of key radical philosophical positions. These positions are frequently extreme. They provoke and because they provoke, compel the reader to take a stand, to answer Nietzsche with either a yea or nay. God was dead and along with God the metaphysics of good and evil which Christian theology had constructed around the concept "God"- Inequality and hierarchy belonged to the natural order of the cosmos and was ordered through the exercise of the will. The superior human is right to crush the inferior. The justification of life is found in aesthetics, in art. Man is only justified in life in his highest types. The highest level of culture was reached by the Ancient Hellenes and their twin Gods of form and intoxication, Apollo and Dionysus. Evil is necessary to the vitality of life. A new man is coming whom Nietzsche dubbed the Übermensch, (superman, overman, higher man) who will give the earth a new meaning and create new values. Nietzsche, like de Sade, whom in some ways he resembles, poses the reality of radical positions and invites us to accept them if we are not afraid of where the truth will take us. Time is not linear but circular. Life consists in becoming through a striving of the will to conquer, so that conquering and life are indistinguishable. War forges great men. Women are the enemies of human progress because by their nature they make peace with pertaining reality and prefer security to seeking to change an existing order. Style is more important in human life than happiness.
Nietzsche’s was a lonely life and it became lonelier as it progressed. He was not a professional philosopher (he survived off the charity of his old employer) yet the focus of his entire life was the production of philosophical works which in his life time few people read but which since his death have been read by millions. He never married and the nearest he came to it was a rejected offer to Lou von Salomé, who was later to be the mistress of Freud and Rilke. Nietzsche’s writing was placed on the Roman Catholic Index. His collapse into a vegetable state was seen by many pious Christians as evidence of the punishment of God. Nietzsche: the Faust of our times: this is how Thomas Mann portrayed him in Dr. Faustus, where the Nietzschean "overreach" parallels Germany’s unsuccessful challenge to the United States as the determining power of the twentieth century.
Nietzsche’s writing was admired, albeit selectively, by the young fascist movements of the twenties and thirties. He has frequently been denounced as a forerunner of fascism and a considerable part of the debate around Nietzsche has consisted in his admirers, especially his Jewish admirers, seeking to prove that his views were wilfully misinterpreted by the national socialists. In fact, the highly selective admiration of Nietzsche after the Second World War by liberals easily matches the wilful distortion of any fascists. Part of the evidence that Nietzsche was "misused" is alleged to lie in the fact that his posthumous work, published as Die Wille zur Macht by his sister, Elizabeth, is presented so as to suggest that he was nationalistic and anti-semitic. Her biography of her brother, which is said to distort his character, although frequently referred to, is out of print, but a denunciation of Elizabeth remains standard in post-war Nietzsche studies.
Oh how should I not lust for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings-the Ring of Recurrence?
Nietzsche is most famous, I think, for the statement "God is dead". It originally comes from Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Joyous Science- FW) repeated in another context in Zarathustra’s Prologue in Also Sprach Zarathustra (AsZ). The expression struck me when I first heard it (years before I met it, accompanied by an almost sickening feeling of anticipation, when reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra) as not the utterance of an atheist, when by "atheist" we mean one who denies the possibility of the existence of the divinity. "God is dead" means that God died, and to die one must first live. God was but is no more. This is what Nietzsche meant and it is the pronouncement of a religious writer. In the words of the woman in whom Nietzsche had placed his highest hopes, that proud aristocratic twin-star of his to be who never was, Lou Salomé, "in the shocks to his spirit, when he fancies he is following his own sacrifice and commitment, he is releasing his own religious passion" (Nietzsche in seinen Werken Insel Taschenbuch p. 61) Yes, the man was religious who in Zarathustra’s words of comfort to the dying tight-rope walker said of divine punishment and the Devil,
"All you have spoken of does not exist: there is no Devil and no Hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body: therefore fear nothing any more!" (Zarathustra’s Prologue).
Nietzsche believed he had a mission to relieve higher men of doubt, the doubt that comes from a guilty conscience, especially when that guilt and that conscience has been induced by others, and he argued that all bad conscience ultimately originates "somewhere else", not in the natural self. Either one accepts that one belongs to another’s spirit and will, which means for Nietzsche to be a slave, or one expresses the will to impose oneself on others. The acceptance of morality without questioning its roots constitutes in Nietzsche’s view the acceptance of Sklavenmoral, slave morality. When I behave as others expect me to, out of fear of what others think rather than out of what is within me, in my blood, then I am, so Nietzsche, a slave. This does not mean that slaves are not necessary. On the contrary. In Menschlichliches, Allzumenschliches, he states that slaves are necessary.
Who was Nietzsche? What was Nietzsche? In his own words in his biographical sketch Ecce Homo (EH), he was not a man but dynamite, "the crucified one", as he signed his last letters from Turin. He was, he said, destined to pronounce unpalatable truths. Nietzsche has something inevitable about him. He strikes us as more a fate than a man and yet for all that very much a human being, a sufferer. His life span, which corresponded almost exactly to the years that Queen Victoria was Queen of England, covered the years of Europe’s greatest triumph and greatest defeat: triumph in that everywhere across the globe Western (and that meant White) values provided the template of civilization. Western man seemed to be lord by providence of the future of human kind and for the first time in human history he was beginning to make headway in conquering the diseases which had hitherto tormented and decimated Homo sapiens. To survive in the Western, that is to say white man’s world, non whites could go to school with the white man, like the Japanese, all but perish like the American Indians, or become his servants and subjects, like the Negroes. The future was good. The future was white.
Nietzsche’s times also witnessed the beginning of the decline of white hegemony, for the foundations of faith which underpinned the confidence and arrogance of the White Man-that His God and the image he made of his God were the acme of creation, was undermined by new findings in natural history, which, if accepted as genuine, meant that the story of his God and implicitly his civilization, were myths at best, deceptions at worst, yet White civilization was inextricably entwined with the mission to convert the world to Christian belief.
For the most part, Westerners of power and influence were optimistic that progress would continue and the civilization of the West thrive and spread to cover the entire world. Nietzsche did not share this optimistic view of the future, and a large part of his writing is taken up with repudiating the basis of historical optimism. From his early work on Greek tragedy to his final unsorted notes published posthumously by his sister, there is a consistent and consistently deepening darkness to Nietzsche’s world view, a refusal to ignore the horror at the heart of the moral darkness of life, a refusal to cover, sweeten or modify. The primordial question of Nietzsche’s philosophy is this: God is incredible, so what is the sense of life? He was especially disdainful of those who considered discussion of such topics vaguely embarrassing. It is no wonder that Nietzsche was especially critical of the English and English "philosophy". The disdainful quotation marks were his.
There have been very many commentators on Nietzsche since his death, giving widely varying, and sometimes contradictory, interpretations of his works. To take a handful from just the early days of Nietzsche criticism: for Kurt Eisner he was a religious fanatic (Kurt Eisner- Friedrich Nietzsche the Apostle of the future). Kurt Eisner was a Jewish revolutionary who headed the short lived Soviet Republic of Bavaria and was assassinated by German nationalists in 1919. He compared Nietzsche to Rousseau, a writer whom Nietzsche hated with a passion. For Ludwig Stein, the Übermensch was not a myth but an approaching material reality. Rudolf Steiner sought to separate the authentic Nietzsche from the mythical Nietzsche. Nietzsche for Steiner was a psychologist who examined the distinction and difference between instinct and self-awareness, between, as he saw it, body and soul, bringing Nietzsche close to Goethe, whom Nietzsche greatly admired. The body/soul duality finally destroyed his spirit. Steiner however insisted on the unity of Nietzsche’s thought and that he was an authentic philosopher, something which some commentators then as now were inclined to doubt. Steiner underlined in Nietzsche the distinction between the strong and weak man, the strong man being the one who could associate instinct with the truth, while for the weak man instinct is separate from the truth. It is the strong man who is creative.
For Alois Riehl (Nietzsche Der Künstler und der Denker -Artist and Thinker). Nietzsche’s Zarathustra was a religious prophet, Nietzsche’s atheism superficial, his hostility to Christianity based on his political hostility to the growing democratic element in Christianity, not on a rejection of God. Hermann Türck (Friedrich Nietzsche und seine philosophischen Irrwege Nietszche and his philosophical Delusions) considered, as did Leo Tolstoy, that Nietzsche was mad at an early stage and his madness is reflected in his writing, where it is impossible to find coherence such as one would expect from a sane person. For Otto Ritschl, Nietzsche was an out-and-out no-holes-barred atheist (Nietzsches Welt und Lebenanschaung-Nietzsche’s World and his View of Life). This was the view taken later by Henry Mencken (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche); he believed that Nietzsche paved the way for a completely laissez-faire, scientific America. This "laissez faire" robber baron Nietzsche has been associated by many commentators with Max Stirner, whose masterly and uncompromising Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (The Ego and his Own) preached the freedom of the ego from all metaphysics, all duty, all religion, all obligation which the individual was not compelled by force to accept and did not accept of his own free will and adopted to serve his own egotistical ends. But for Anthony Ludovici, (Nietzsche and Art 1911) on the contrary, Nietzsche’s aesthetic was an out and out attack on the empiricists like Bacon and Hobbes and evolutionists, notably Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche rejecting both the optimism of such thinkers and their conviction that man is determined by his external environment rather than by his inner spirit, Ludovici argued.
That Nietzsche’s egoism recalls Stirner’s was the more usual view; for example, that of Eduard Hartmann. For Hartmann, Stirner and Nietzsche were together the ambassadors of a new gnosis, according to which the world is nothing more than a representation of the individual will. Hartmann also made the intriguing point that Nietzsche with his apparent phobia towards women and his suggestive style was himself a "feminine writer". Nietzsche’s rage against weak men recalls the rage of the independent minded woman when she does not find a man to measure up to her and keep her in check. An important aspect of Nietzsche’s thought was underscored by Vaihinger (Nietzsche als Philosoph ) according to whom in his most extreme final phase in Wille zur Macht Nietzsche came to realise the ultimate "justice" of the strong conquering the weak, that if the strong conquer by virtue of what they are, that is the only real justice and morality. This sense of natural, Darwinian justice, necessarily meant a rejection of democracy by Nietzsche as an unnatural imposition by the weak on the strong, quantity over quality. The realisation of the "justice of inequality" should be a source of joy to all those who are strong in spirit and therefore who love life.
F. Lange (Geschichte des Materialismus), Stirner, and Nietzsche pronounced the rejection of religious constraints on the enjoyment of life. Here there is one of many paradoxes in Nietzsche’s attitude: the man whose views on women were patriarchal, attacked the source of the domination of women by men in Western society: Christianity. Arthur Drews (Nietzsches Philsophie) placed his emphasis on Nietzsche’s philosophy of Being and criticised the underlying egotism of the vision of genius and Übermensch, praising Nietzsche for developing the thesis of the unconscious will but criticising Nietzsche’s emphasis on the individualism of that will. Drews also noted parallels with Rousseau-both Nietzsche and Rousseau sought a return to a pre-civilized "noble savage". Drews further argued that Nietzsche had not fundamentally departed from Descartes, replacing so to speak "cogito ergo sum" with "volo ergo sum". In later years Nietzsche was seen as the harbinger of the new proletarian hero. The Übermensch is the Marxist classless man. (H. Bun Nietzsche als Phrophet de Sozialismus).
Fritz Giese (Nietzsche: die Erfüllung Nietzsche: the Fulfilment) published in 1934, ingenuously argued that Nietzsche’s writing was compatible with fascism but incompatible with national socialism. The Übermensch can be seen as one who preaches the importance of the will over the intellect. The Übermensch overcomes decadent man with the might of his creative will but he relies on no eternal "Truth" with which to do so. Nietzsche’s affiliation is with brave and strong peoples regardless of race, and he would have been, argues Giese, closer to the "strong" people such as the Arabs or Japanese than to the doctrine of national socialism, which preached and projected a biological superiority for the Aryan race, especially its Nordic sub-race. Another critic of Nietzsche close to national socialism was Wilhelm Michel, who in his work Nietzsche in unserem Jahrhundert (Eckart Verlag, 1939) took Nietzsche to task for what he called Nietzsche’s "rejection of Nature". Nietzsche seeks to place sexual energy "under the yoke of the intellect" (p.67) and that in the very area where the intellect has the least role to play. Michels points to Nietzsche’s sickly fear of sexuality, love and affection. The Übermensch notwithstanding, Nietzsche’s writing consists of repeated "attacks on the natural in man and above all the natural man, attack on the seriousness with which he takes the sexual act and its awesome acceptance by the spirit, attacks on the sexual act itself…and finally attacks on the interconnection of Eros and Spirit [ emphasis in the original] , in other words of the body and the spirit-soul, which precisely in natural people transforms sexual experience into moral consciousness and catches fire at that moment" (p.62)
The Übermensch seeks to overcome weakness in himself and in others. This was a reverse of Darwinism in that life for man was no longer just a struggle for survival (in which case we might wish to argue that modern man, sensible in many respects and despite his follies, to the ultimate interest of his species, is indeed "Darwinian" with his many ingenious survival techniques and technics) but a struggle of the individual to overcome his weaknesses and discipline himself to become hard and conquering, over himself and over others.
Other interpretations of Nietzsche include that of Gottlieb Sheuffler, who stressed the anti-individualistic aspect of Nietzsche and Alfred Bäumler, who wrote in Germany on Nietzsche before during and after the Third Reich and was responsible for the introductions in the standard Kröner editions of Nietzsche. Bäumler signalled out among other things Nietzsche’s concept of ultimate justice residing in inequality, born of struggle rooted in Nature. All those who believed in rights or justice not founded in the hard reality of Nature were "priests" of anti-natural religion. The distinction between slave and master belongs to both Greek and German, and it was Nietzsche’s aim, according to Bäumler, to effect a synthesis of the two, reuniting the Hellenic and Germanic highest man in a new Aryan Übermensch.
A common post-war approach to Nietzsche has been to argue that his thought is valuable at a personal psychological level but valueless, even dangerous, on a political or public one. In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Richard Rorty wrote that writers like Nietzsche are "invaluable in our attempts to form a private self-image, but pretty much useless when it comes to politics" (p.83). For the German Jewish philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Nietzsche was dangerous because he was a critic of modernity who did not link his critique to a project of human emancipation but this danger has passed. In 1968 in his introduction to an edition of collected writings by Nietzsche on the theme of recognition, he wrote that between the world wars Nietzsche had fascinated a generation of "pseudo-radicals" (pseudoradikaler) such as Oswald Spengler, Gottfried Benn, Ernst Jünger, Martin Heidegger and Arnold Gehlen in a matter which was "practically incomprehensible" for us today. Karl Löwith in an introduction to a selected works of Nietzsche (1956), argued that Nietzsche’s stress on the role of the human will was a typically Judeo-Christian vision in which history is seen as the creative will of God, Nietzsche simply replacing God with the Übermensch.
In 1999 the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk gave a highly controversial address (the Elmauer Speech) which challenged Habermas’s view that Nietzsche’s sting had been drawn. Sloterdijk starts from a humanist premise of a cultured race of man which has evolved out of barbarism, but in opposition to the current humanist consensus, he believes that humanist progress is not aided by the lifting of restrictions on individual behaviour, or the increasing of mass education and opportunity, but rather in the selection, even breeding, of a superior kind of human being. Taking his cue from Martin Heidegger’s famous essay of 1946 on humanism, Sloterdijk argued in Nietzschean language that "humanism must be overcome". Sloterdijk argued for a withdrawal from what he called "birth fatalism" and the introduction of eugenic selection. Also, an entirely new educational process was imperative if society did not want electronic media replacing schools as the primary source of education. Sloterdijk’s arguments referred frequently to Also Sprach Zarathustra when pleading for the breeding of a new human elite.
How is it possible that one man can be open to so many interpretations, many of them contradictory? There is here as in other respects something of Shakespeare about Nietzsche. His sense for the tragic of life, for contradictions which can perhaps never be resolved, led him to create a work which is itself a constant questioning, a paradox. If there is one indisputable constant thread running through Nietzsche’s writing it is perhaps this: never accept anything for the sake of accepting, out of weakness, accept only with the blood, that means out of the innermost compulsion of the will to live. Religion, equality, truth, art, accepted or rejected should be taken seriously but not piously.
The prevailing optimism of the enlightenment which continued into the nineteenth century was overshadowed by an increasing doubt and pessimism regarding old certainties, a doubt which had been in part initiated by the enlightenment itself but which had subsequently received an enormous strengthening from the discoveries of science. The religious background to social practice was being put under a growing strain. The very dynamism and independence which had made the dominance of the white man possible, undermined through the evidence of new discoveries and development of industrial technology, the moral assurance on which the white man’s imperium had been built. The West relied on a morality which, when no longer deeply hypocritical, needs must be intellectually incompatible with a belief in racial superiority. Christian morality, with its unnatural doctrine of the uniqueness of the human soul, infers that all races are equal.
In commenting on Nietzsche’s attitude to art, Anothony Ludovici pointed to three characteristics of Christianity which Nietzsche believed ultimately led mankind away and down from a high destiny (to overcome his own species and become something higher). They are: equality of all souls; the insuperable depravity of human nature; the insistence upon a unique "Ultimate Truth". Nietzsche’s great critique of Christianity, for which he is so famous, does not constitute much of a rational argument but rather a polemic based on what Nietzsche himself considered to be aesthetic and instinctive revulsion towards the unhealthy. Many people are sceptical of Christianity because of its historical hypocrisies. This was not Nietzsche’s point. On the contrary, he was essentially claiming that Christianity was not hypocritical enough. People were increasingly not believing literally in the Biblical message, yet Nietzsche was convinced they followed a morality which had its roots in Christian ethics. In particular Nietzsche deplored Christianity’s high opinion of the importance of the individual human being. The average human being is of precious little importance according to Nietzsche, when not dedicated to the service of something or someone higher than itself.
For Nietzsche, there was nothing more irreligious than to follow the religion or mores of a society without following them to their roots; one must, he believed, either instinctively accept them or instinctively reject them. If there is no inner conviction within ritual, convention, tradition, morality or laws, they perish. Ultimately all the trappings of culture originate in power and the maintaining of power.
Nietzsche did not strive after personal power in his own life. Reading a Nietzsche biography induces a feeling akin to claustrophobia. His life took place within an area running from Bonn in the north to Leipsic in the East to Sicily in the South and Nice in the West, encompassing that very area where the majority of the great classical composers of Europe were born. Although the geographical area in which he moved (and Nietzsche was a romantically itinerant figure) was not great, it included four states. The man who wrote "Woe to him who has no homeland" was much of his life stateless, had neither hearth nor home to speak of and certainly no homeland. The lines in The Waste Land could apply to Nietzsche: "I read much of the night and go south in the winter."
The nineteenth century was more than the century which preceded it or came after it, a century for men. Had women ever had a more reduced role than in the century of Prussia and the British Empire? Even Queen Victoria wore black all her widowed life in mourning for her beloved Albert. The man is a warrior, the woman a bearer of children, all else is folly, proclaimed Zarathustra. Here we have a Janus like figure yearning after strange Gods and preaching hardness and cruelty and loyalty to the earth and contempt for other world religions, behaving for all the world like a vicar, a man fastidious and polite, and formally and correctly attired at all times, avoiding all the natural excesses of indulgence and afraid of breaking the conventions of social behaviour. Nietzsche was in many ways a typical figure of the age he professed to despise. On the other hand, as Karl Jaspers pointed out, the fact that Nietzsche lived outside Germany from his twenty-fifth year for all of his creative life helped him to judge with the perceptive power of the outsider.
Nietzsche preached (Der Anti-Christ is a sermon!) the death of God and the coming in what he called the "great noontime" (grosser Mittag) of the superior man, the Übermensch. This Übermensch will be as different from Homo sapiens as Homo sapiens is from Australopithicus. The old truths are dead. Man stays before a new beginning and the new beginning is called the Übermensch and will create a new history and new values. Everything will begin again, as in Nordic mythology, as in Wagner Ring cycle, which opens and closes in the same place and with the same bars of music. There is no end, in either sense of the word, to history.
What is good and evil in a world without human beings? This world existed, according to the newest geological and zoological discoveries of Nietzsche’s time, far longer than a world with human beings. Were the dinosaurs which hunted and feasted on one other, evil, inspired by the Devil? Did Tyrannosaurus rex represent a creature out of Hell? The suggestion is ridiculous and yet not ridiculous. The great flesh-eating dinosaur is hellish in a certain Utopian perspective of Nature which cannot tolerate it and is deeply threatened by it. The "evil" of this dinosaur is dependent on the perspective of the person who considers it evil. It was Nietzsche who pointed out that if we investigate the history of good and evil or what men say is good and evil, we see expressions for forces in accordance with or against the aspirations of whoever is making the moral judgement. By pointing to the history, utility and conditioning of what societies have deemed good or evil, Nietzsche argues that good and evil are tactical creations of social movements and certain types of men, not primordial entities. The world as a moral construct according to the Bible was hardly tenable. Morality therefore became truth and history with a genealogy, with a relation. "The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes." (AsZp.55/p.27)
Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Röcken in Saxony, not far from Leipsic, the son of a Lutheran pastor and descended from Lutheran divines on both sides of his family. He attended the Gymnasium of Schulpforta, the school which had produced Klopstock, Fichte, Schlegel, Novalis. Nietzsche belonged to the last generation to be educated in a disunited Germany, the Germany of the Kleinstaaterei, the Germany so disparaged by the engineers of a united German nation and disparaged by Nietzsche himself, yet German genius has flourished in the Germany of small states, not in Germany as a united nation.
The man who championed health and denounced Christianity in his polemical Der Antichrist, as "sick" was himself crippled for most of his life by migraine, myopia, indigestion and nausea. Ill health compelled him to abandon his university post in Basel and turn to the itinerant life, which was on one level a vain search for health, a healthy diet and a healthy climate, and at another level a quest for the meaning of life without God, a quest for an independent spiritual life after the death of God the Father. Nietzsche found this sense in the abandonment of the soul in favour of the spirit, (the distinction between soul and spirit is important in Nietzsche’s writing) an abandonment of metaphysical certainties in favour of the certainties which are created by the will to fashion life according to one’s own interest.
An extreme paradox in a life abounding in paradox, is that the man whose Zarathustra taught his disciples to abjure pity and "become hard" himself lived on the generosity of the University of Basel, which awarded him a modest pension for life in gratitude for his ten years’ service as a lecturer. It was not legally obliged to pay Nietzsche a life-long pension. Nietzsche had the University of Basel to thank that it was not hard towards him, according to Zarathustra’s precept, but extremely generous, one is tempted to say soft. Without that generosity it is difficult to see how Nietzsche would have achieved that independence of the need to earn a living which he himself in his essay on Schopenhauer described as indispensable for a philosopher.
He spent most of his creative life, like the wandering Jew, on the move. A possible settled bourgeois life in Saxony, guarded by his pious mother and his jealous and ambitious sister Elizabeth, was the permanent reminder of the "normal" even "happy", certainly female dominated, life which he rejected, until, succumbing at last to mental and physical collapse at the time that he was living in rented rooms in Turin, he was taken home to be cared for by his mother and sister. Thus he returned in 1889 to where he came from, broken and crippled, like Goldmund in Hermann Hesse’s haunting Medieval tale, Narziss und Goldmund.
In a peaceful state (the last man discovers happiness?) he died in 1900. Elizabeth saw to it that his funeral and burial observed all the proper rites of the religion he had spent his active life denouncing. So everything ends as it begins, everything lies in the ring of recurrence. He was turned into a nationalist icon by his sister, who published his unfinished manuscripts and created the Nietzsche archives at Weimar, visited in the thirties by Germany’s new son, whose anti-democratic energy and fanatical commitment to the creation of a ruthless elite, seemed to be the fulfilment of Nietzsche’s prophesy of the Übermensch.
Nietzsche’s writings are not easily systematised. They are abstracted from practical life, certainly from the practical life of the individual. There is a playfulness in Nietzsche, with which broadly speaking, Anglo-Saxon writers are uncomfortable and which German writers tend to ignore. France was Nietzsche’s spiritual home, on his own admission, from the writers who influence him and by his approach to serious subjects and his distrust of romanticism.
"My artistic taste stands up for Molière, Corneille and Racine against an arid genius such as Shakespeare’s." (Umwertung aller Werte UW p.322). His taste so he claimed, was decidedly classic. (Another paradox: when writing about Nietzsche many writers like to quote Shakespeare-nobody to my knowledge has ever felt that a quotation from Racine would be apt.) Nietzsche’s Racine and Montaigne must have been "offended" by the "unbearably common" nature of the German language (die Fröhliche Wissenschaft p 121).
Nietzsche, who in his life was the quintessential nineteenth century romantic, sick in body and spirit, unable or unwilling to settle in one place, least of all his homeland, yearning for the impossible and for another country of the heart’s desire, this Nietzsche was the anti-romantic polemicist who preferred France to Germany, the classical style to the romantic, Racine to Shakespeare! Another paradox involves a grievous failing in Nietzsche: the presumption to write freely about European culture while apparently being largely ignorant of and unenthused by the classics of European literature. The man who defended Racine against Shakespeare had nothing to say about Racine’s plays and little about Shakespeare’s. Although he was convinced of the importance of art, that life without art was unthinkable, music apart, Nietzsche rarely commented intelligently about specific art or artists in terms of their art.
As a "great German aphorist" (Adolf Bartels) Nietzsche wrote not in a German but in a French tradition. Voltaire, Chamford, Larochefoucauld, Montaigne are his models, although Hegel and Schopenhauer had used aphorisms as well. There is something of the dandy in the provocative way he wrote and in the world of English letters, Nietzsche resembles Oscar Wilde. "Only the superficial man does not judge by appearances" recalls Nietzsche’s aphorism that Alles was tief ist liebt die Maske-All that is deep loves masks (JGB § 40). Nietzsche admired Napoleon as the embodiment of higher man ("he wanted a united Europe and Europe as master of the world" FW 58). Nietzsche claimed that his favourite novelist was Stendhal, who made the "only funny atheist joke"-God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist, which is not an British humour, still less German humour, but it is French humour. In Ecce Homo we read "the only home of the artist is in Paris", a city Nietzsche had never visited. The comment alone is typically romantic to the point of cliché. Paris is the city of the educated elite, of the love of culture, of debate, perhaps above all of style. English and German culture lack style compared to the Italian and French, at the very least, they lack aristocratic style.
Aristocratic attitudes were very important to Nietzsche, who had a horror of commonness in every sense of the word, of the uneducated masses. This explains much: why he mocked the German "spirit", and despised all things English, including their democracy and the English respect, bordering on adulation, for the "plain honest God fearing man". Nietzsche seemed most at home in France or Italy, admired idol-smashing Islam from a safe distance and was torn in his feelings about the Jews, whom he admired for their lust for power and their success yet loathed because it was Jewish inspired (and under St. Paul Jewish guided) Christianity which overthrew the Roman Empire.
Nietzsche despised the beer drinking nations, the nation of quantity, of mass, of popularity, of socialism, of romanticism. "Life is a fountain of delight but where the rabble drinks every well is poisoned" says Zarathustra. The French can raise bad taste to a cult, but vulgarity is an English speciality and boorishness a German one. For Nietzsche the English, with their democracy and capitalism, were a levelling people, people too materialistic to be capable of truly great things. "The utilitarian Englishman is out and out mediocre." (JGB §228). Remarkably however, Nietzsche had not a word to say, favourable or unfavourable, about the British Empire.
Above all else, Nietzsche admired French individualism, the individualism which questioned every doctrine, the questioning spirit of enlightened and Enlightenment, thought. In many ways, Nietzsche’s philosophical writing was a challenge to the doctrines of Hegel. Simply put, Hegel argued that historical figures are the manifestations of the spirit of their age (Zeitgeist), a spirit which is, through dialectical confrontation and contradiction moving towards the ultimate best, the fulfilment of itself. Mankind, so Hegel, is striving towards perfection, his history is one of progress to the best he can make of the world.
Hegel’s ideas still dominate much of modern thought and have been rehashed for modern consumption in Fukuyama’s End of History. To argue like Hegel and Fukuyama that history has an end (in either or both sense of the word) is to argue that history is really a story with a beginning and an end and such a story begs the question: who is the author? If our history with a beginning and an end and a plot, hence a meaning, takes place in the physical world, there must exist another world, a world behind or beyond the world from which the physical story of our existence is taken, a world in which the "original" is taken of which its manifestation in our world is only a copy, in a word, there must be a metaphysical foundation to the world in which we live. That is what Occidental philosophy had always upheld, although the notion had been undermined by the Enlightenment, which Nietzsche denounced but whose intellectual child he was.
With his notion of eternal recurrence Nietzsche broke with the sacred tradition of a clear and true history of mankind as written down in the Bible and emphatically denied that human history was a history of progress, thereby breaking a taboo perhaps even more sacred in Nietzsche’s day than belief in God. Mario Guardi (Il Caos e la Stella Il Falco Milan 1983) argued that it was not so much the theology of Christianity, whose liturgy in many ways reflects a belief in recurrence –Jesus sacrifices himself again and again to atone for our sins and his death and resurrection is repeatedly celebrated-but rather the secular optimism about the end of history which is the main target of Nietzsche’s attack. This optimism is part of what Guardi calls the "illuminist-evolutionist ideology of progress", and this ideology he says, is Hegelian. Nietzsche’s repudiation of Hegel was a philosophical repudiation of the principles of progress and belief in human improvement. Many commentators see Nietzsche as a heroic pessimist who challenged the optimism of liberalism and socialism.
Significantly, Guardi writes not of the myth of progress but of the ideology of progress. Progress as ideology means not just a belief that ongoing progress is "inevitable", but the additional belief that it must, should and will come, in a word, that it is desirable. Guardi projects a Nietzschean "pessimism" for which Progress is an ideology containing a programme which certain groups seek to execute. What comes under the banner of "progress" (female emancipation say, or the building of roads, the United Nations, universal education, medical care for all, one language for the world) are actually the successes of interests, in other words manifestations of the Will to Power. If Proudhon said that "property is theft" we could paraphrase Nietzsche’s adage as "Life is Theft" or better "Life is Robbery". The very act of life is the winning of the fuel of life; and there are no winners without losers.
This is the meaning of Nietzsche’s glorification of war and Zarathustra’s adage that a good war justifies every cause. To the extent that we fight, we live because fighting is the assertion of the will. Those who do not fight are slaves. Those who dislike fighting dislike life. Sport is fighting, trying to understand a book is fighting, even the creative act of the artist or the cook is one of fighting.
The acceptance of the notion that "progress is inevitable" is, according to Nietzsche, to fall for the trick, (a trick once used by Marxists, now by proponents of the free market in exactly the same way) of slave morality to weaken potential opponents by making them believe that they are trying to resist what is "inevitable", or to talk like Nietzsche, to seduce them with morality , thereby to disarm them of their will and to make them into slaves. To describe something as "inevitable" implies that history/life has a complete story, a rational tale, with which we are obliged to conform. There is no such story, says Nietzsche. The supreme consolation of this is that through our actions we influence the universe.
For Nietzsche, and in this he resembles William James, comprehension is arrived at through action, not speculation detached from action. The story of life is one which we can help to write ourselves, must write if we are to be free. The slave, by not acting on the basis of his own volition, has no comprehension of the world and is like an animal. In other words, persons who accept the world as it is, are for Nietzsche quite literally little more deserving of right or regard than animals. Nietzsche’s philosophy implies not the right, because he rejected the ontological nature of any and all "right", but the absence of reasonable objection, to mass elimination of cumbersome human beings, the "many too many" who burden the world with their presence and contribute nothing to it. In his posthumously published Wille zur Macht he writes of the necessity of exterminating what he without qualification called the "many too many". Liberal admirers of Nietzsche do not like to dwell on those parts of his writing which favour the physical pruning of the species.
Nietzsche’s contempt for the mass of humanity, which reached an extreme point in his posthumous writings (many people claim on hearsay evidence that they were not intended for publication, that they were even partly forged by his sister) and talks of encouraging the worthless to die and for regretting the necessity of the existence of the mob, outrages many. This writer would say in reply that it is outrageous that we revere our own species and respect human life out of all proportion to its value. The world is sick with too many humans. The great majority of human beings are of trifling significance to the earth but in great numbers as they exist today they have become a danger to her. The well being of our planet is far more important than any individual human being, indeed is more important than millions of human beings. Napoleon, whom Nietzsche deeply admired, once remarked that a night of leave for his troops in Paris would make up for the troop losses of a major battle.
The human race is increasingly engaged in the production of what can be immediately consumed. "Built-in redundancy" has become a standard feature of mass production, especially out of Asia. Homo sapiens is becoming a consuming parasitical species-even his former helpers, notably the dog and the cat, have turned from guard dog and mouser into pets, parasites, with no function other than to be cuddled and admired. Man and his pets feeds on the planet without remorse. The sacrifice, so as not to offend the "optimism" of the world beyond history, takes place behind sealed doors. Billions of animals are slaughtered to provide food for human animals and parasitic pets. Monkeys undergo hideously cruel experiments in ongoing research to find a cure to the diseases of humans whom Nature has condemned. While humanitarians strive to save lives in the third World, lives which are an increasing strain on the resources of the world, scientists are striving to prolong the lives of the pampered inhabitants of the first world. One to one the Westerner is more of a strain on natural resources than a Third Worlder. Life expectancy is constantly increasing in the West, yet nobody, it seems, is willing to explain why people in the West should live longer, what is the purpose of ever longer human lives. No reason is offered. It is assumed that it is desirable. Life is everyone’s (God given?) human "right". Who says?
For Nietzsche the sacredness of human life was a sentimentality originating in the Christian myth that each human individual is "equal in the eyes of God", and given an "immortal soul". Nature is placed at the disposal of all human beings. The result is an unrelenting burden on Nature and a steadily increasing domestication of the human species, with an increasing dependency on sympathy and understanding. Hunters, commercial and non-commercial alike, who claim to be "in tune" with nature, work with all the comforts and conveniences of modern technology.
The "niceness" of man is hypocritical. Sentimental and soft in theory, the typical Westerner for example, still eats meat, thereby supporting the misery and exploitation of millions of animals, in some cases snaffling up such tasty morsels for his refined palette as veal, pâté de foi gras or frogs’ legs, all produced by heinously maltreating animals. Without the myth of that "superstition" as Nietzsche called the human "soul", there is no ethical justification for allowing the vivisection of animals but the coddling of humans. The Westerner is like Edgar in Wuthering Heights who would "happily torture a kitten, so long, of course, he could be sure its claws had been pulled out first." The fundamental question as to the real worth of human life is one that Nietzsche dared to pose and answer. His answer is that human life which does not serve something higher than itself, is trash. Even in the case that life has a value that value has a term to it. There is a time for fighting and a time for dying. Most of us cling to life too long, when we no longer have an aim, a will to power. When Zarathustra said to his followers that they should "learn to become hard", it is not difficult to interpret this the manner of radical ecology. Equally, however, Nietzsche’s philosophy could be used to justify vivisection and the killing of animals in pursuit of gastronomic delight on the grounds that the weak command the strong. Nietzsche’s philosophy is open to very different interpretations.
Nothing stays in the way of the monstrous creator of new laws like Napoleon or Ghengis Khan. They are without metaphysical baggage, that is to say prejudices, about right and wrong borne out of anything other than the necessity of securing their own interests and increasing their own power. Karl Jaspers in his book on Nietzsche (published in English as Nietzsche An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity) argued that the destruction of metaphysics meant that each of us must be content with his/her own version of the truth. (Nietzsche 232-234). Truth, Jaspers notes, is never obtained by the dialectic. Nietzsche’s proposal is more radical and more terrible. It means ultimately that "truth is a lier" if need be that without the metaphysical bedrock of belief truth is meaningless and not only truth but being too. Being is then created and truth created by our actions. Nietzsche’s destruction of metaphysical truth is a push towards ontological positivism. For many later commentators such as Derrida and Foucault, Nietzsche foreshadowed post-modernism and deconstructivism.
From the beginnings of Christianity to his own day, and even before Christianity with Plato and his Utopian Republic, the belief in a life beyond life, values behind phenomena, has been, so Nietzsche, the corner stone of Western philosophical thought. Nietzsche’s pronouncement is that there is no life beyond, it is all the dream of the weak to console themselves for failure. Unique and uniquely shocking in its day, is the openness, the extremeness the refusal to apologize, the manner in which Nietzsche denounced Christianity. He refused to express envy for those who believed. Such people were cowards and slaves by nature. For Nietzsche, a belief in a life beyond life indicates a laziness towards life, a lassitude, a quietism, a refusal of life as becoming (Werden) in favour of an ontological "freeze" which is presented as "ideal", "duty", "obligation", "God", but which in reality belongs to the morality of the weak. The philosophical expression of this is called metaphysics. Christianity is "metaphysics for the masses" which the cunning Jew, Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, brought to the Gentile world, specifically the Roman Empire, sapping its will and rotting it from within. A consistent theme which runs through Nietzsche’s philosophy is the rejection of metaphysics. This world is the only world we shall know. Hamlet’s "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so" sums up this view. Once all values have been overthrown as metaphysical, we have for the time being at least no belief, we believe in nothing, this is the time of nihilism, a failure to provide an answer to the great Why? of life. That failure, Nietzsche pointed out, is spectacularly the failure of evolutionary theory.
If we consider the striving of insects and birds in the context of the struggle for the survival of the fittest, the scientist can explain to us that animals devise tactics to survive and reproduce but he cannot explain what compels them to "want" to do so. Without consciousness of itself as a living being independent of the rest of matter, what compels the bee to act wholly rationally in terms of survival, as though it wanted to survive? Not answering that question in the case of human beings is to turn away from great things and embrace the role of senselessness in the world.
According to Jean Granier (Le problème de la vérité dans la philsophie de Nietzsche), Nietzsche borrowed the term nihilism not from the Russians but from the Frenchman Paul Bourget whose essays published in Paris in 1885, drew the attention of fellow psychologists to a new psychological sickness which could be detected in many leading writers and which he termed "nihilism" "a terminal life fatigue, a doleful perception of the vanity of all effort." (Paul Bourget essais de Psychologie contemporaine Prologue p.xix 1937 ed.). For Nietzsche, nihilism was the end of metaphysics. As Heidegger noted, Nietzsche understood the consequence of the destruction, the death of God, as the loss of the primordial right of established morality; and Nietzsche had done more than that, according to Heidegger. In overturning Platonism, he brought to an end two thousand years of Western philosophy, that is to say, two millennia of metaphysical prejudice. The dialogue with God was a monologue. This is the meaning of the great Nietzschean solitude. The world is absurd, not the world in itself, which is so to speak, a tabula rasa, but the world is absurd in the sense that the reality of the world contrasts absurdly with the metaphysical aspirations man has hitherto graced it with.
Nietzsche’s pessimism was not the uncompromising despair of some existentialists. For Jean Paul Sartre, man makes the world absurd by trying to understand it. But for Nietzsche the world was only absurd within a given historically determined situation. The will to nothingness which is "active nihilism" is a will "downwards" just as a will to life is a will "upwards". Nihilism results from a decay of values, in other words from decadence. Radical nihilism results from the discovery of the "truth" of the non-existence of the moral absolutes. This nihilism is deeply attached to "the truth". Nihilism is born of previous beliefs in a dialectical process called Aufhebung, a term characteristic of Hegel. The word means "abolition", but includes the notion of removing or lifting a weight. So, out of the old values, via a process of Aufhebung, the new values come into being. Hegel named this the manifestation of the Weltgeist, the world spirit, which Nietzsche believed was little more than God in a rational world, the same metaphysical lie, dressed up in rational clothes to satisfy intellectuals.
Nihilism sanctions the spreading of decadence. Decadence, which is a normal part of life, becomes dangerous at the moment that it attacks healthy parts of the body politic or of culture. Decadence, says Nietzsche, is heralded by the decline and devaluation of instincts. The decadent character has allowed rationalism to govern the instincts. In the great reversal of commonly accepted wisdom and most certainly the wisdom of his time, Nietzsche said that it was ultimately instinct which should drive rationalism and not rationalism instinct. What decadence proclaims as the moralisation of man is in fact the domestication of man and the weakening of the spirit. To replace real life, the decadent seeks artificial stimulation. In a decadent society, the passions are lived vicariously, adventure and horror is vicarious, the tone of reality is a quest for the safest solution. The superior values decline before the irresistible advance of rationalism, which is the tool of the weak to destroy the strong. For Nietzsche, rationalism is not neutral. It is a weapon of destruction.
Nihilism takes three forms, according to Nietzsche: 1) incomplete nihilism, the undermining of values through rationalism without however, pushing that rationalism to a logical conclusion, 2) passive nihilism, which means accepting the decline of values in the world by not reacting to that decline and accepting the new world as the "inevitability of progress." ("The eye of the nihilist idealises amid what is ugly and is unfaithful to its own memories, it lets drop, it withers; it does not protect its memories against the livid decolouration which covers distant and past things with its own weakness." WzM). Finally there is 3)active nihilism: cults and trends which actively devalue, mock, pull down and destroy without themselves a vision of or belief in anything at all, so that the very notion of higher things is a subject of mockery. This prepares the way for slave morality (Sklavenmoral). For the majority of modern humans, the death of God means nothing, just as the death of other metaphysical deceptions means nothing. The masses were not improved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus, notes Nietzsche, died in vain. The masses are equally indifferent to the death of God. They have discovered their happiness in hedonism in everything small, and they creep along the ground and are numberless as the sand flea. That their lives are meaningless does not distress them, because so long as they are spared suffering and responsibility, they are "happy".
The non productive, passive slave man, the Untermensch will come to rule and his values to rule-for Nietzsche this is ultimate decadence. Soon, Zarathustra says, we shall see the triumph (or not triumph-the word is too redolent of extravagance and hierarchy, say emancipation) of the "last man", who mocks Zarathustra and will have nothing to do with him. Nothing that requires effort or risk is worth the candle for the last man. All that really matters is security, warmth and creature comforts. Humanity becomes a herd, incapable of creative ambition. "Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die and no one cares why." He who does not believe in the equality of value of human lives "goes voluntarily into the madhouse".
The nihilism of vengeance is paradoxically the motor of human change because it lies at the origin of the will to overthrow natural order and without that will, history itself would not have taken place. (It did not take place among the Australian aborigines. So far as can be established they have no human history). Does this not mean that we earn the "Father of Lies" a debt of gratitude, without whom the simple, good and strong would have remained permanently in place and would never have been compelled to combat and create? Nietzsche’s disagreement with Rousseau takes on another colour here. Did he really "disagree" with Rousseau, or was it not that he had another taste? If Rousseau sought a Utopian Nature free from the machinations of a corrupt species, Nietzsche saw Nature as part of the infancy of the spirit which is today human and tomorrow will be something else, the Übermensch. The Übermensch can only create himself through a process of distance and discrimination; the Übermensch is selected out of those with spiritual energy to project values beyond the passive scepticism of the post-metaphysical world. In one respect the post-modern world has indeed become "Nietzschean". Truth has become not a question of the scientific accumulation of data but of good taste. The post-modern world invites its citizens to chose their truth: "There’s no accounting for taste"; "Whatever turns you on". In an essay in The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Spring 2001, Lewis Call (Towards an Anarchy of Becoming) argued forcibly that Nietzsche’s deconstruction of personality and permanency of Being was the very essence of anarchism and a rejection of liberalism. Our truth is what "tastes good" to our spirit. We decide our own destiny and our own identity.
The Untermensch is characterised by the nihilism not of destruction but of acceptance of the truth of others, not out of conviction but out of the incapacity to will one’s own. The Untermensch accepts those truths which are the most comfortable. The Übermensch accepts those truths which are nutritious. Every metaphysical truth leads into a void. The need to "keep up with the news" on the part of those who are impotent to influence the news is a sign of what Nietzsche believed was a substitute for God: fatalism. Fatalism summed up in the expression "you can’t change human nature" or "that’s the way it is" "c’est la vie" and the like, is the expression of the slave, of a person that is, unwilling to live by exercising the will to change the world. The slave is resigned to his fate, the free man is not, he loves it and if he does not love it he challenges it. Here we can see the element of Nietzsche’s philosophy which may appeal to every rebel: the courage to say "no" for freedom’s sake.
Man, according to Nietzsche, has to learn to reach beyond either the resignation of the slave or the optimism of the metaphysician (which two besides are interrelated). What does Nietzsche mean by Man? Nietzsche constantly refers to der Mensch, and the term is vague. Slavery and selection are certainly a part of the society which has overcome nihilism but he nowhere suggests how the Übermensch is elected/selected, still less who selects the Übermensch. The end of civilization is not happiness, he writes, but the great deed; but who judges what is "great"? The herd may also speak of "great deeds" if so inclined. When metaphysics has been banned who is to say that merely physics will not replace it? That is to say that the superior man is simply the one who has controlled the means of production, who controls, regardless of why or how. Here Nietzsche can sound like Marx: history belongs to the conquering strength of the future Übermensch, who is coming whether we like it or not. This is how Marx predicted socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. One reason so many persons react favourably to the multifarious tastes of post-modern society, is that they have uneasy memories of what happened when higher men sought to impose one taste upon society. Linked with Nietzsche’s acceptance of immense suffering as a tribute which the Untermensch pays to the greatness of life, it is not hard to understand why many commentators regard Nietzsche with distrust or distaste.
Philosophy, unlike science, is wisdom drawn from personal experience of the manifestation of Being. Being only exists, according to Nietzsche, as Being interpreted. Authentic Being is the Being we experience by ever coming into Being, by becoming into being through the application of our will to power. Inauthentic Being is the concepts, distanced from experience, of God, Nation etc. Stefan Zweig called Nietzsche the "Don Juan of knowledge". Nietzsche wrote in Fröhliche Wissenschaft, "we Argonauts of the ideal at the end of long journeys...find ourselves face to face with an undiscovered country, never seen before by human eye, limitless, beyond all lands and all havens of the ideal, a world of prodigious beauty...." This is the counterblast to Hegel’s proclamation of the fulfilment of reason and the fusion of reason and reality, which takes place at the end of historical time when what is real is rational and what is rational is real.
There is no "thing in itself" for Nietzsche. We are in a constant state of becoming. Just as the stream remains the same although it is never the same (Heraclitus) so the person is the same although never the same because ever becoming. Consciousness of self, which characterises man, developed with language, which is the highly refined communication of the will of the self becoming in the world. It is not in our consciousness of our selves that we come closest to an understanding of what we are but in our bodies, in our health, in our acting within and upon the material world. "There is more wisdom in our bodies than in all our philosophy." (AsZ)
It is one thing to stress the roll of instinct, which indeed the nineteenth century underestimated, it is another to lay waste to human intelligence, to reduce truth to a relation of wilful bodies. Nietzsche’s rejection of the customary, the ceremonial, the slow, the established, the time worn, reflects his inability to relate to the natural world. The man who places such faith in the body was physically crippled, half blind. Nietzsche is never free of his disgust for humanity that even the greater part of humanity is, he acknowledges with regret, necessary. Never does he show the least gratitude for the work of hands, for the achievements of the simple folk, except when finally in the days of his decline, he rejoiced that he was being treated like a prince. The Marxist interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy as the aggressive call to arms to a reactionary bourgeoisie to resist the rising demands for social emancipation is therefore not unfounded. It is no difficult matter to find support in the texts for the suppression of the wage earning classes. Much of the writing reflects a disgust at the simple and natural. This disgust recalls the ennui of Baudelaire, that urban genius who also believed the body was wiser than all philosophy. Woman, land, simplicity, redemption and nation: Nietzsche scorned everything that was rooted, all that was not cultivated, urban, accomplished, aristocratic, classical and egotistical. And the deepest tragedy is that Nietzsche himself in everything he did and wrote is crying for redemption, redemption from loneliness. Nietzsche was a cripple for all his genius, a cripple in body and a cripple in spirit, a hermit in the mountains in love with his own echo.
Nietzsche’s is the expression of a "tragic world view" (Rose Pfeffer) and one which seeks to overcome the pessimism inherent in a godless world. The Nietzschean tragedy begins as it were, in Leipsic in the year 1865. In the account we are given, reminiscent of a tale from H.P. Lovecraft or ET Hoffmann, Nietzsche claims that he discovered a mysterious book on a second hand book stall and a devil whispered into his ear that he should buy it. He did so and when he had taken it home to his lodgings, he read the strange work, a book of philosophy, in one sitting. Philosophically speaking it was a work of blasphemy because it insisted that life was changed not by a decision of God but by the force of the human will alone. It was a work which was to change his life. The book was Arthur Schopenhauer’s Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Idea) This work is not easy reading at all, not one which most of us today could imagine hungrily reading in an afternoon. But this book deeply moved Nietzsche and Wagner before him. Nietzsche was a distiller of ideas and what he distilled from this book was that the world only exists by virtue of the will. Suffering is created by the will to consume in the world, to satisfy appetites in the world, but we can never be satisfied because we are all mortal and made of dust. In one of his aphorisms, Schopenhauer remarks that the one thing to be said in favour of industrial progress is that the suffering of countless horses was being spared as they were replaced in their terrible work by machines. Life is suffering and the more we seek to live the more we cause trouble and stress to ourselves and others. Essentially, Schopenhauer was preaching a kind of Bhuddism. Nietzsche was enthralled. Schopenhauer as a person attracted Nietzsche especially because he represented a break with the closed world of the German philosopher, "career philosophers" so to speak. Schopenhauer claimed to be a philosopher of life who had the independence of means not to need to earn his living from his writing. In a letter from Leipsic to his friend Deussen, Nietzsche compared the old professional professors of philosophy to vampires drawing on the blood of younger spirits ( a hint at Goethe’s Faust here, when Mephistopheles returns to Faust’s old university, which is full of dust and cobwebs.)
Nietzsche’s philosophy is a personal lived experience, not an objective reckoning with a philosophical problem. From the beginning, this is what won him the sometimes fanatic admiration and discipleship of the few, and the scorn of the professional class of academics. Maybe this is why he has always been more popular in France than anywhere else, except for a short time Germany. Where else but in France and at a less stylish level Ireland, can the non-professional philosopher be taken seriously as a philosopher? (One wonders what Nietzsche would have made of the Irish-they might have succeeded in giving him a taste for beer and companionship!)
Just as Marx accepted Hegel’s dialectic but famously "turned it on its head" so that it is not material history which is created by the spirit but spiritual history which is created by material reality, (which means in human history economic power relations) so Nietzsche "turned Schopenhauer on his head". The world is indeed created by our will, by the will to life, but we should greet the world thus made joyfully because that is what we are made for, to make way for greatness, the greater will. The greater we are the greater our will to live, to increase our power, to make the world in our image, to fulfil the serpent’s promise, to become like unto gods! History is not written for us. We write history. We write our own story. Those who have no stomach for the struggle of life should take their leave of life. The world has no need of those who have no need of the world. Thus spoke not only Zarathustra but also the grimly determined prisoner of Landsberg.
The essence of life is not that it is a copy or creation of something outside itself. It is self-creating. Being is becoming. From Lange’s Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism) published in 1866 and from what he knew of the discoveries of the age in which he lived, Nietzsche confronted the truth that God was dead. What had come before God, what comes after God? What has always been is being. Being is and without a life in being it is impossible to speak of history or good and evil. Good and evil must have a genealogy. This is the basis of Nietzsche’s work, Zur Genealogie der Moral. Morals have a history, they are created not by Jahve but by men, in the case of Christianity by priests and epileptics. There is an interest behind all morality according to Nietzsche, a power interest. If God does not exist, does this mean that good does not exist? The metaphysical good existing beyond us, argued Nietzsche, never existed, it is a tool used by some to increase their power. Ultimately all good and evil comes down to a question of power and the will to power.
If we look at any manifestation of life, however modest: a bacterium, or even at the very limit of life and non-life, that shadowy no-soul land inhabited by the virus, then we see and see again, the expression of life in the form of a Will to Power. Whatever any life form is doing, it is exercising a will to power, to exercise a control over a part of its environment. The movement of a bacterium, the struggle of a plant towards the light, the glance of a hawk, the stretching out of a baby’s hand, all these are mechanisms of power, be it no more than power over space (and that is an awesome power after all!). In the third aphorism of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche describes the body itself as a conglomeration of souls organized in a hierarchy serving the will. Any organism consists in the operation of this complex hierarchy in which command and obedience is essential. Commanding and obedience is more than part of life, it is life. From this it follows that the loss of command and obedience is death and that which preaches equality as the basis of social or biological organization preaches the cessation of Being, expresses the death wish.
A loss of interest in life and a loss of interest in power are the same. Where the will to Power ceases, there ceases life. The death of x is the cessation of x’s will to power. The cessation of the will to power is death and vice versa. But since power clearly exists independently of life, it is the expression of the will which is life. What we call "evil" is nothing more and nothing less than that which we conceive as life threatening to us to our world, that which seeks to take away our control over the will, so that we are reduced to slavery or death, or that which seeks to corrupt our image stamped by our own will to power on the world. For this reason evil is frequently ugly (to the beholder) for ugliness is a physical manifestation of the ontological corruption of life, ugliness representing disharmony and decomposition in terms of our world, maybe pain too, pain being the warning signal of a possible support or thread which holds our being or our world together. Nietzsche argues that these are not absolutes because both evil and ugliness can only exist by contrasting them with what they are not. Evil for Nietzsche has no existence in itself but only as a force which threatens to overpower the power in the world for whom the force in question is "evil". This is the mark of what is called his perspectivism.
Life is the will of matter over matter and to this will we give the name spirit. "The Will to Power can only express itself through opposition. " (WzM p.438). Even the will to equality is the will to power of the inferior. " Where I saw a living being there I saw the Will to Power and even the Will of the servant I found the Will to be Master." (AsZ p124) "He who cannot obey himself will be commanded. That is the nature of all living creatures." (ibid). Nietzsche’s own philosophy is borne out of contestation and opposition. The opposition to Platonism is the basis of Nietzsche’s phenomenology; the opposition to Christianity leads to the Übermensch; opposition to Kant’s categorical imperative and English utilitarianism leads to an aristocratic imperative, in the assertion that the purpose of human development is the raising of humanity in its highest types; his opposition to conservatism leads to his exaltation of the creative force of the destructive will; his opposition to religious eschatology leads to his discovery of the ring of eternal recurrence. His opposition to nationalism leads to his imperialism, with Napoleon as the ideal, who willed the unity of Europe. Napoleon saw in the emerging world of capitalism "something like a personal enemy" he was "organized violence of the first order", the "contrary of Rousseau". Out of opposition springs affirmation and by the by one more paradox: this resembles Hegel or Marx’s dialectic.
Much of Nietzsche’s writing can be understood as violent rejection and reaction, and principally to four figures, namely Plato, St. Paul, Rousseau and Hegel. The basis of Nietzsche’s rejection of metaphysics is an attack on Plato and the notion that our world is a shadow world, our existence corruptible contrasted with an incorruptible after-life. St. Paul, not Christ, was the person Nietzsche held personally responsible for turning Christianity into an instrument of Sklavenmoral. Hegel believed that history is a rational story which is moving inexorably onwards to a prescribed, pre-scripted end. Nietzsche insisted that this was an illusion. Finally, Nietzsche rejected Rousseau, whom he regarded as a hateful post-Christian moralist, with his belief that civilization was responsible for social evils. But once again there is a contradiction: Nietzsche, like Rousseau, praised the natural, the instinctive, against the enlightened and civilized and traditional.
[The remainder of this essay is available in the print version.]